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Adam Fennessy: how — and why — to say sorry in government

Adam Fennessy
Adam Fennessy

For government leaders, fronting up to the community and admitting when something goes wrong is a vital step to repairing trust.

And when you’re in charge of the government department responsible for backburning around towns at risk of bushfire, things can go really wrong — as they did last year at Lancefield in central Victoria, when a planned burn escaped containment lines and destroyed four houses.

Often the community “just want to know who’s responsible, what are we going to do about it, and were we sorry,” says Adam Fennessy, the secretary of Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

“If we’re going in there and not putting ourselves up front with the community we’ll never earn respect.”

So Fenessy accompanied the minister and other staff to Lancefield and told them: “we’re responsible, we made a mistake, and I’m sorry”.

“A lot of the community almost breathed a sigh of relief that someone was going to take some accountability. Because ultimately, whatever the arguments, our department did that, we lost some homes and we were responsible. But one reason I did that was we said that we need to rebuild trust,” he told The Mandarin.

The department needs to get better at communicating with communities, he acknowledges. They have already tried including citizens in planning burns in some parts of the state “and it works really well”.

“Whether we liked it or not, we tended to talk to people just before [conducting planned burns]. Sometimes we talked to them six months before about a long term plan, they wouldn’t hear from us and then we’d say we’re burning tomorrow.

“Or in the case of Lancefield … they didn’t know we were planned burning until we knocked on their door and told them to get out, to evacuate.”

Apart from not angering citizens, better consultation before, during and after events such as planned burns means improved safety and better outcomes, Fennessy argues. While the department can explain the broader risks and what the science is indicating, community members will be able to point out things like “we know about these tracks or we know fires 10 years ago came from there”, he says.

Although it can be hard for public servants to relax their grip on control and work closely with community, often it leads to “richer” potential solutions.

“If we’re going in there and not putting ourselves up front with the community we’ll never earn their respect. Even if we’ve got great technical expertise we won’t succeed.”

Fennessy says DELWP is trying “lots of things” to engage citizens, including, for example, a mix of online and face-to-face consultation on everything from central city development and apartment guidelines to climate change and water.

Technology is helping rebalance against “well positioned, louder voices” by opening up opportunities to reach people who haven’t participated much in the past. “We’re tapping into parts of the state, different community groups we haven’t asked as much before,” he says.

Collaboration key to super-departments

Cutting down the number of government departments in Victoria has conferred an “elegance” on inter-departmental relations but also made collaboration more critical than ever, Fennessy contends.

“In Victoria now that there are fewer departments — two central agencies and five content departments — so the relationships between secretaries are even more critical. What I’ve discussed with all the secretaries in Victoria is that it ups the ante on how we collaborate together,” he says.

Managing larger departments is never as easy and there’s a risk “that we become too detached from the community” he thinks. The challenge is to make sure he has good senior executives — which also helps strengthen long-term leadership.

“If you get some good strong leadership in an organisation that can really cultivate strong leadership at the next level down and the next level down,” he muses.

But fewer departments also means managing fewer inter-departmental relationships, “so there is a simplicity or an elegance in how we manage those”.

Some think the splitting of conservation and agriculture in the latest machinery of government reshuffle between DELWP and the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources has eliminated a conflict whereby those charged with giving advice on safeguarding the environment are also promoting farming interests.

There are pros and cons to no longer having two often opposing policy areas in the one organisation, Fennessy argues.

“If you have contested areas in the one department you can try and sort out a balance within that department. If they’re in different departments you can get a really good concentration on the economic aspects and in our case the liveability aspects, but the risk is you move too far apart,” he says.

To ensure good quality cooperation, Fennessy and DEDJTR secretary Richard Bolt have signed an agreement about how to work together. They hold several meetings per year between the full senior executive teams of both departments.

“Richard and I agree our job is not to try to crunch complex issues into one piece of advice for government. It is however to get senior officials to work together to get a good set of clear options so they can make the trade-off decisions, because they’re elected, and a lot of the trade-offs around the state are things that parliament should consider,” he said.

“If officials work together really professionally then we allow ministers to make those trade-offs really well. In a sense my success at DELWP is reliant on working well with Richard in DEDJTR.”

Unaccountable decision-makers or cowed implementers?

Fennessy reveals Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles encouraged the Victorian Secretaries Board to read Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia, in which The Australian Financial Review columnist argues public administration is threatened by the loss of institutional memory as the public service shrinks.

This raises questions about the role of the public service. Like the debate between Eccles and Victoria’s auditor-general about when public servants need to stop warning against bad policy and move onto implementation, on the one extreme is a stable but unaccountable bureaucracy that bosses ministers around — in the model of the so-called “seven dwarves” of post-war Canberra, who maintained their influence while governments came and went — and a public service that’s perceived as merely doing what it’s told.

“In the middle you have that alignment [Tingle] spoke about with the public service working alongside — separate to, but alongside — elected officials. Then you can see things like the national competititon reforms that happened in the late 80s and the 90s,” he suggests.

Fennessy also thinks the loss of institutional memory is less noticeable at state level, thanks in part to the second tier’s much greater role in the delivery of services and closeness to the communities it serves.

He offers his own example of the value of retaining and using that knowledge. Following Victoria’s Wye River bushfire over the recent Christmas period, where more than 120 houses were destroyed, he spoke to Ben Hubbard, the former head of the Victorian Bushfire Recovery Authority, who dealt with the rebuilding of Marysville and Kinglake after the 2009 fires.

“Not only did he share his specific observations, he pulled out the evaluation report, and then he pulled out the really detailed evaluation report, which I circulated to our senior people working on the Wye River recovery. They were different fires, they are different community recovery issues, however there were some really common themes.

“As a result of that and talking to ministers we very quickly sent senior people down there to work with Colac-Otway shire because we knew that every week where the community was wondering who to talk to and what to do was another week that would not help that community rebuild,” he recalled.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.